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Climate change is about saving human beings — plain and simple

By Brian Platt

I wish more environmentalists would acknowledge the conflict between their goals and the goals of the anti-poverty movement. I know it’s not always zero sum: there are many things we can do that are good for poor people and good for the planet. And I recognize there are many passionate environmentalists who see the conflict when it exists. But too many people avoid the fact that the movements are often at odds.

Some of the bigger issues are well known. China averages two new coal-fired power plants a week. Earlier this year, Tata Motors of India revealed the world’s cheapest car: it retails for US$2,200 after taxes, and will allow millions of Indians to own a car for the first time. India’s middle class will soon be larger than the entire population of the United States. In fact, the elevation in recent decades of hundreds of millions of Chinese and Indian people out of abject poverty might be the greatest single social justice achievement of a generation. This cannot be ignored, yet advancing it further is certainly not good for the environment.

I’m convinced that the only solution to this problem is to pour money into green technology in developed countries and then make that technology cheaply available to developing ones. But try telling that to the protesters in Copenhagen who want carbon emissions reduced now; binding treaties implemented now; alternate lifestyles forced on people now. Colour me skeptical.

What really irks me is the extent to which environmentalism in Canada has become a bourgeois obsession, detached from due consideration of the consequences. Organic food is expensive, requires much more farmland and, in the opinions of many, it has no tangible nutritional benefit over “regular” food. It is now fashionable to buy carbon credits to offset whatever carbon-emitting activity you’re undertaking; often these credits fund eucalyptus farms — land-intensive operations in Third World countries that soak up carbon dioxide while displacing forests and farmers.

In British Columbia, environmentalists and First Nations have become unlikely foes. The First Nations see the potential windfall of jobs and profit that could result from allowing loggers and miners onto their land; the environmentalists are appalled to see their former allies befriending the same companies they both used to fight. But what is the value of a secure job to an impoverished Aboriginal community? What is the value of the forest that will be cleared? There are no easy answers here. You have to compromise somewhere. I incline toward the anti-poverty concern, but I don’t like clear-cuts any more than the next person.

But you know, in a way, I’m just not too worried about Earth. We need to stop using the phrases “destroy the planet” or “save the planet.” That’s not what this is about. Sixty-five million years ago, a massive comet slammed into the planet, generating suffocating clouds that killed almost all the surface life. In case you didn’t notice, Earth is still here. Our blue and green orb has an amazing ability to regenerate itself.

Climate change, and almost all environmentalism, is about saving human beings, even if we don’t like to admit it. We are worried about ourselves and our way of life. It’s certainly a valid concern, but let’s be honest about it. And let’s make our decisions with this in mind.

Author's photo
Brian Platt is a master of journalism student at Carleton University.
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